AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris went up in flames today. The spire of this historic building has collapsed. But a Paris fire official says the main structure of the cathedral has been saved and preserved. For now, though, firefighters are still on the scene. Vivienne Walt is a correspondent for Time magazine based in Paris, and she joins us now. Welcome.
VIVIENNE WALT: Thank you.
CHANG: So I understand you could see the fire from your balcony. What did it look like from where you were standing earlier today?
WALT: Well, I mean, you could certainly see smoke rising. And the air was pretty thick with smoke. You could smell it for several hours. It's abated a bit now. But I have to say, you know, this city has been through some pretty high drama in the last couple of years. And every time the sirens start screaming through the streets, there's a kind of tension that descends on the city. And, you know, people immediately start gathering and trying to see what's going on. So outside the cathedral you had hundreds and hundreds of people who have been out for hours now, singing, just standing there silently, just gathering. Notre Dame is a place of gathering.
WALT: It's really - it's really unlike any other church in the city and, you know, very, very few in Europe. It's not simply a church. It's almost like stepping into a kind of medieval marketplace inside. It's enormous. It's - there's always a hurly burly. And there's always a - you know, numerous things going on in there.
CHANG: Well, now, we were seeing reports that officials are saying the fire might be connected to the renovation work going on in there. You've reported on the renovations for Time. What kind of shape was the cathedral in before this fire?
WALT: Well, you know, for years they have been saying that the church was in terrible shape. And in fact, church officials had taken me up onto the roof not that long ago, when I was reporting this for Time, to show me how pieces of the building were simply dropping off. They described the gargoyles, the medieval faces on the side of the church, as being like ice cream melting in the sun. They would simply, like, drop away. The church had no money to replace them or restore them. And so they were using, like, PVC pipes to just, you know, stick on the side of the walls where the gargoyles had been. And...
CHANG: Oh, my goodness, wow. I mean, Notre Dame is one of the most iconic symbols of Paris. Can you talk about the cultural significance of this cathedral for France?
WALT: Well, this is where it all began. This was the beginning point of Paris. Everything, all distances in the whole of France, in fact, are measured by the distance to Notre Dame Cathedral. It was the kind of ground zero, if you like, of the city and of this country. And it has remained - even though France is a strictly secular country now, it has remained a very, very symbolic heart of the country that I think will - this will really have quite a deep impact on people.
CHANG: Yeah. Vivienne Walt from Time magazine, thank you very much for joining us tonight.
WALT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.